Tuesday, November 12, 2013

American Hero - Part II

(Flyover at K-State football game, October 29, 2011)

In honor of Veterans Day, I'm sharing a feature story about Vietnam POW Bill Talley. I wrote the story for Wesley Towers, the retirement community in Hutchinson where Bill and his wife, Louan, now live. Wesley Towers gave me permission to reprint the story from their Fall 2013 newsletter, Tapestry. (I've been writing for Tapestry for nearly 25 years.) As a side note, Bill's wife, Louan, grew up in Stafford and then lived in Stafford while Bill was imprisoned in Vietnam.

Part I was printed in the blog yesterday. (Click on the link to read it.) Because it was long, I printed it in two parts. On May 11, 1972, Talley's plane was hit by a missile over Hanoi, it went down, and he was captured by the Vietnamese. Here is the "rest of the story," beginning when Talley arrived at the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison.


The Hanoi Hilton
     For the first few weeks at the Hanoi Hilton, Bill Talley was in solitary confinement. Each night, he was taken from his cell, where his captors interrogated him for hours.
    “I was surprised that they didn’t really ask me that much about military operations,” Talley said. “They were more concerned with propaganda. They wanted me to denounce the U.S. military and the war through writing letters or at a press conference. They used fear tactics, telling me that they would withhold treatment on my knee if I didn’t cooperate. My knee was black and blue, six inches above and six inches below the kneecap. I had red streaks running down toward my ankle. The interrogators would say that I needed to write the letters or give a press conference so that I could get treatment and so that my leg wouldn’t have to be amputated. I refused, over and over and over again.”
    After about two months of solitary confinement and nightly interrogations, Talley was moved into a large room with 12 other POWs. It was only then that his captors informed the U.S. military that he’d been captured and was a prisoner of war.
   “That’s when my wife found out my status,” Talley said. “It was typical for the Vietnamese to delay reports of capture. Some wives didn’t know the status of their husband for several months and a few didn’t know for several years.”
    Talley didn’t know where his wife and children were either. He knew that they’d have to move from McConnell, since he was no longer on base. It took several months for him to learn that they had moved to Louan’s hometown of Stafford. Though families wrote letters and sent packages to the POWs, the guards rarely let the prisoners read their mail.
   “But we could always tell when a package arrived. The guards would smell like aftershave.”
   Still, Talley was grateful for the move out of solitary confinement.
   “For a short period of time in my life, I lived in the company of heroes, who chose their own attitude despite extraordinary deprivation and cruelty. We survived because of our determination to resist the enemy by any means available and our commitment to something greater than ourselves – the survival of our comrades. Some of these men had been captured four to six years before me. They were like big brothers to me and gave me advice, encouragement and help I needed to sustain me until release.”
    The POWs endured rats, mosquitoes and filth. They ate two bowls of soup a day, pumpkin in the summer and cabbage in the winter. They were sometimes confined in handcuffs and leg irons or had to kneel on broken glass.
Faith during adversity
    Talley said it was his faith that kept him going. After he was moved to the room with other POWs, a ranking officer assigned him the job of chaplain. Using a bit of confiscated lead that they fashioned into a pencil with threads from their clothes and blankets, he transcribed the Apostle’s Creed, words of hymns and Bible verses that he learned in Sunday School as a boy in Oklahoma. He used sheets of rough brown toilet paper for his makeshift prayer books. Once a week, they would quietly sing the songs and read the words, taking comfort in the ritual that reminded them of home and family.
    “Although my life as a prisoner was miserable, I can’t say that the time was entirely wasted,” Talley said. “A person develops a new perspective towards life and his fellow man when he can personally witness people caring for and administering to sick and wounded under the most severe conditions. I have seen hungry men give up what little food they had to help a companion. I have seen cold men share the few clothes they had with sick or injured prisoners.
    “One of the most impressive sights was to see men fashion a simple cross from two sticks and, in their own way, worship God, despite their circumstances. One lesson I learned in prison was that I can be happy and comfortable in life with less than I previously thought necessary. (Eugene) “Red” McDaniel told me while we were still in prison that he didn’t consider his six years as a POW wasted. He believed when we were released he would be able to live and enjoy the remainder of his life more than people who had not shared our experiences. He could enjoy simple acts that most people take for granted, like getting a drink of cold water from the refrigerator. I think he was right.”
POW-MIA Memorial at the Stafford VFW
 Operation Homecoming
   In December 1972, Talley and his fellow prisoners were thinking about Christmas. They were tying together old olive green socks and fashioning them into a make-shift Christmas wreath.
   “We heard a rumble like thunder,” Talley recalled. “It was continuous, and it got closer and closer and louder and louder. Through the bamboo curtains over the windows, we could see the orange glow of fires as bombs were dropped. The POWs who’d been there awhile told us, ‘Pack your bags, boys. The B-52s are coming, and we’re going home.’ ”
    Later, the POWs learned that President Richard Nixon had ordered the B-52s to bomb Hanoi, an unprecedented move since the U.S. hadn’t previously bombed there. Nixon ordered the bombing stopped on Christmas Day, but it resumed the day after and continued for five days. The Vietnamese signed a Peace Treaty January 28, 1973, and the war ended.
   Talley was released from the Hanoi Hilton after 322 days in captivity, along with 589 other Americans, during Operation Homecoming, March 28, 1973. 
    “When we came home after the war, we were asked to write a one-page message of how we endured a cruel time in our lives,” Talley said in a recent speech. “Nearly all of the POWs credited their survival to three faiths: Faith in God who would not abandon us. Faith in America who would not forget us. Faith in our comrades who helped us in the daily struggle of life.”
    Colonel William H. Talley remained in the Air Force until his retirement in December 1981, serving 26 years. The Talleys moved to a Wesley Towers Heritage Home in May 2012.
William Talley's ribbons
Hero or Not?
    Bill Talley might not call himself a hero. But others are not so quick to exclude him. Senior District Judge William “Buck” Lyle nominated Talley for an Armed Forces Hero award, which he received at the Central Kansas American Red Cross Heroes Award banquet in June.
   “I didn’t know Bill until this year,” said Judge Lyle, who flew 163 missions in B-52s in Vietnam. “I read an article about him in The Salina Journal, after he’d given a talk at the Salina Rotary. … He had been shot down in Vietnam and spent almost a year in the Hanoi Hilton. I didn’t know him, but he was already my hero. Three of my classmates from the Air Force Academy had spent time in the Hanoi Hilton, and I knew what that meant. … I met him for the first time when the Red Cross was filming both Bill and me for a video they were putting together for the banquet. Since then, I know firsthand that Bill is a great guy with a sharp mind and a great sense of humor.”
   Since meeting, the two have gotten together to trade Air Force stories. Lyle, too, retired from the Air Force as a Lieutenant Colonel, then was squad commander of the 117th Air Refueling Squadron based at Forbes Field in Topeka, leading a squadron to Desert Shield and Desert Storm. There are plenty of war stories to go around when the two get together.
    “After getting to know him, I was right: He is a hero,” Judge Lyle said. “He’ll be my hero forever.”


  1. I love how you tell a story. You and Cheryl Unruh (she grew up in Pawnee Rock & writes "Flyover People" for the Emporia paper) are my two favorite Kansas writers. Thank you for your storytelling and your photos.

    Karla K.

    1. Thank you so much! You made my day!

    2. this niga comin to me skool tomorrow swag